by John Grisham
Doubleday, 245 pp, $27.95
April 7, 2002 – Let those among us who have not imagined owning a million dollars stop reading right here, all three of you.
John Grisham's protagonist in this latest of his legal thrillers is law professor Ray Atlee. Recovering from an ego-shattering divorce, he now is confronted by a demand from his father, ridden with cancer, to come home at once. Atlee has never been close to his father, a prominent judge in Mississippi re-elected for term after term until recently. The judge's reputation has always been above reproach; indeed, he was famous for his life of service to his county and state.
It had been the judge's dream that his two sons would become lawyers, joining him in a family firm on the town square. This didn't happen. Ray got his law degree with honors, taught in New England and then at the University of Virginia Law School — among the country's finest. His father was deeply proud of him but never told him so, not once.
Judge Atlee's other son, Forrest, has added dark, new meanings to the term "black sheep." Drugs, alcohol, and weird friends have combined to make his life one acted out in courtrooms all over the country, jail sentences and rehab confinements alternating. Forrest has also received a note to come home. He tells Ray he'll see him in Mississippi; Ray wonders in what condition.
Ray arrives at the rundown mansion first, to find his father asleep on the couch in the den. Touching his shoulder, he discovers his father is dead. At once aware of time lost, never to be recovered, he senses a lifetime of regret settle over him.
A cursory search of the room reveals the judge's last will and testament, dated the day before, leaving everything to be shared equally between his two sons. Investigating, Ray looks in an open cabinet with stacked stationery boxes, opens one, and is astounded to find stacks of hundred dollar bills — all told, a hundred thousand dollars and change. There are 27 boxes in all. (At a later time when Ray can arrange to count it, he finds the total is $3,118,000.)
Forrest arrives and also is saddened to find his father gone. His most pressing need is then to get out and purchase some beer. The brothers' closest old friend, Harry Rex Vonner, joins them and takes over the planning of the funeral with the pomp and ceremony the judge deserves. Harry Rex is a "good ol' boy." He's a lawyer and has been there for the judge all the years that Ray and Forrest were not, but now the three of them can mourn together while they drink and eat and remember old times.
It's Ray who faces the dilemma of what to do with the $3 million-plus. No one else seems to know about it. But frightening things begin to occur; it appears that an unseen force is challenging his right to the money. It's difficult to imagine the actual bulk of this much cash — the space it takes up, the weight of it. Questions abound, including "to IRS or not to IRS." Ray considers how Forrest's share of the cache would affect his brother's excesses. However, the overpowering question for Ray, hanging over him like a lead raincoat, is where did his father get it all?
Hanging on to this ton of green treasure leads Ray on a dark chase. Through it all, the would-be legacy, now contained in black garbage bags, makes its way from the locked trunk of his Audi sports car to under numerous beds, finally ending up in one of those self-storage places. Grisham writes:
"The rented van came from a moving company north of town, sixty dollars a day. He tried for a half-day rate because he would need it only for a few hours, but sixty it was. He drove it exactly four tenths of a mile and stopped at Chaney's Self-Storage, a sprawling arrangement of new cinder-block rectangles surrounded by chain link and shiny new razor wire. Video cameras on light poles watched his every move as he parked and walked into the office."
What a storyteller Grisham is! Once you begin to read, not much else will get done besides page turning. "The Summons" is not a long novel, but you'll hang onto every word. There are questions of ethics which might prompt one to ask, "If I had it to do over again … ?" It's an intriguing tale, guaranteed to take over and brighten your life for a while.
"The Summons" is available at Dockside Bookshop in Havensight Mall on St. Thomas. To check out other Dockside favorites, click here.
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